MEMOIRS

06.10.11

CIA Officer Jack O'Connell's Revelations about King Hussein, Kissinger, and Israel

A new memoir by CIA officer Jack O’Connell reveals that King Hussein warned Nasser about the 1967 Israel attack and that Kissinger urged Egypt to attack Israel in 1973. But does the record bear this out? Ross Schneiderman investigates.

Whether it's the expansion of settlements or the status of Jerusalem, the past has always held a central role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So as Palestinian protests continued to roil the Jewish state on Sunday, a new book by a former CIA agent in Amman and a trusted adviser to the Jordanian king offers some eye-opening claims about the history of the conflict.

Among them: That the late King Hussein of Jordan warned Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser about Israel's pre-emptive strike in the 1967 war, and that Henry Kissinger, then the U.S. president's national security adviser, urged Egypt to attack Israel in 1973.

"So much of what's been done over the past 50 or 60 years in the Middle East has been based on falsehoods," writes Jack O'Connell, the book's author, who died last summer.

"Now the time has come to tell the truth about what happened in 1967 and 1973, and beyond."

Kissinger did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but in his memoir, 'Years of Upheaval,' the former secretary of state says that the Egyptian attack caught him by surprise. "We… did not yet recognize that [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat considered a war was necessary before he could take the decisive steps to fuel the peace process."

The book, 'King's Counsel,' tells the story of how O'Connell, the son of a small town banker in South Dakota, came to become an Arabic-speaking lawyer and major player in some of the most seminal events in the history of the Middle East. But whereas most historical accounts have been presented through the lens of either Israeli or Palestinian nationalism (or some combination of both), O'Connell offers his interpretation of the Jordanian perspective and that of Hussein, its former ruler.

O'Connell's story, which was co-written by Vernon Loeb, an editor at The Washington Post, largely offers a flattering portrayal of the now deceased king. Yet it is not entirely uncritical, despite the friendship between the two men. In fact, O'Connell is at his best when he writes about what he sees as the central diplomatic tragedy of the conflict: That King Hussein, a leader who wanted peace far more than his Israeli, Palestinian, or American counterparts, was at one point or another betrayed by all of them.

Kissinger—his arm around [his Egyptian counterpart]—said that the United States only "deals in crisis management," and that if Egypt wanted the U.S. to intervene, the country would have to "spill some blood."

A burly former college football player at Notre Dame, O'Connell met the diminutive, 22-year old monarch in the summer of 1958, when he arrived in Amman, the country's arid, backwater capitol, where the neophyte spook quickly ingratiated himself to the king by uncovering an assassination plot against him.

Protecting the king was the thrust of his mission in Amman, as Hussein was a long-standing ally of Washington. In the process, O'Connell bore witness to what he calls Hussein's greatest mistake: His decision to join the pan-Arab war against Israel in 1967, which resulted in a decisive victory for the Jewish state and the loss of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

That loss was preventable, according to O'Connell. Prior to the Israeli attack, King Hussein became convinced that the Israelis wanted to annex the West Bank no matter what. Facing pressure from the Arab states and the Palestinians to take a harder line against Israel, the king signed a pact with Egypt, which placed Jordanian troops under Egyptian command in the event of war with Israel. O'Connell says he tried to warn Hussein against the pact, but he could not reach him in time.

On the eve of war, O'Connell says he learned of Israel's plans to attack Egypt and quickly informed Hussein. "You don't want to get involved in this war," he said. "You will lose." The king sent two messages to President Nasser, but the Egyptian leader disregarded them both. He didn't believe the Israelis would attack Egypt. But they did, O'Connell writes, after receiving a tacit green light from the Americans.

Some had previously written about Hussein's alleged warning to Nasser, but these claims largely originated from the Iraqi ambassador in Jordan, and thus many historians were skeptical, says Nigel Ashton, a historian at the London School of Economics. "O'Connell is writing about an event in which he was playing a pivotal role," he says. "It has to be taken seriously."

Yet O'Connell's claim that Kissinger "instigated" the Egyptian attack against Israel in 1973 in order to negotiate a peace settlement should be viewed far more skeptically, according to Ashton, who interviewed O'Connell for his 2008 biography of King Hussein. "I got the impression that he was a reliable witness," Ashton says. "But as a professional historian, this is circumstantial evidence," because O'Connell wasn't there.

In dispute is what was said between Kissinger and Hafez Ismael, his Egyptian counterpart, at a meeting at an old farmhouse near Paris in the spring of 1973. Dressed in dark suits, the two walked alone through a garden in the sunshine, several months before Egypt attacked. At the time, Sadat had grown disillusioned with his Soviet allies and was looking to improve relations with the United States in order to recover the territory that Egypt lost to Israel in the Six-Day War.

Joining Kissinger at the meeting was Eugene Trone, a dapper former Cairo-based CIA officer with a penchant for bow ties. O'Connell says Trone reluctantly gave him his account of what transpired at the meeting before he died. In his rendering, Kissinger—his arm around Ismael—said that the United States only "deals in crisis management," and that if Egypt wanted the U.S. to intervene, the country would have to "spill some blood." Trone only learned of this through Ismael, who after the meeting "sat by a stream beyond the garden and wept," O'Connell writes.

In his memoir, Kissinger claims that Sadat made the decision to go to war more than a year prior, in the summer of 1972. And there were certainly rumblings that summer. In August, for example, in an interview with NEWSWEEK, Sadat expressed frustration that his decision to expel thousands of Soviet military personnel had not persuaded President Richard Nixon to lean on the Israelis for concessions. He then added ominously that "U.S. interests will shortly become part of the battle for the recovery of our land."

Yet according to 'The Crossing of the Suez,' a well-regarded memoir by Sadat's chief of staff, Saad El Shazly, the Egyptian leader did not decide that war was necessary until October of 1972. And it wasn't until April of 1973, according to Sadat's autobiography, that he met with Syrian leader Hafez Assad in a remote location in the Egyptian desert town to agree on a plan of attack. (The final preparations were made months later).

None of this of course means that O'Connell is correct about what Kissinger said or what he meant to impart to Ismael. What's more likely, according to experts such as William Quandt, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, is that there was a misunderstanding between the two men. At the time, the war in Vietnam, among other international events, was a higher diplomatic priority for the U.S. than the Israeli-Egyptian conflict, says Quandt, who worked for Kissinger as the war erupted. "You can't preclude that…Kissinger…said something a bit like that, but it's a question of intention. I saw Kissinger that morning [after the war began] and he was surprised and angry. His team had no idea what was coming."